Charter Takes Heat in North Texas


Nine North Texas communities are demanding more than $4.5 million in liquidated damages from Charter Communications Inc. for failing to answer calls promptly.

Officials at the cities — Fort Worth, Denton, North Richland Hills, Hurst, Keller, Burleson, Southlake, Benbrook and Duncanville — say they are tired of waiting for the operator to answer its phones in a timely fashion.

The communities are pursuing maximum damages: $3 per subscriber per month. That could total $4.7 million distributed among the nine cities.

Charter has made investments in the systems, upgrading the plant it bought from Marcus Communications. The operator closed down two smaller call centers in Duncanville and Denton in favor of a larger, state-of-the-art center in Fort Worth.

But consumers still say they can't get through on the phone.

City officials say Charter has often reassured them that things will improve. But there has been so much turnover among the local organizational ranks at the systems that nothing ever gets done, regulators say.

Randy Westerman, Fort Worth's manager of cable services, related a recent complaint by a woman who set her alarm for 1 a.m. in hopes she could get a live representative at that hour. She still got put on hold and gave up at 3:30 a.m., Westerman said.

Phone response time is the only customer-service standard in the franchise tied to a liquidated damage formula.

According to the terms of a franchise contract the operator signed when it bought the local systems, Charter representatives must answer its phones within 30 seconds, 90% of the time.

The clock starts once a consumer has waded through the phone queues and placed himself or herself in the proper category.

The standards don't apply during "abnormal conditions," but city officials claim the operator's definition of "abnormal" is very fluid.

City data indicate that Charter makes the 30-second standard 78% of the time "without adjustments."

Only after backing out calls that were subject to "abnormal conditions" does the on-time percentage rise to 93%, according to analysis by the cities.

"Consumers call me and 90% of the time I call Charter and go to the top and management corrects the problem. To me, that indicates a lack of training. Why should we have to get involved?" Cabrales asked.

Charter spokesman David Andersen said Charter is in absolute agreement with officials: the goal is consistent customer service.

But Charter does disagree with some of the assessments of past performance by the cities and their independent auditor. Charter has asked for 120 days to analyze the findings of the consultant, C2 Consulting Services of Dallas, whose report led to the damage assessment.

Andersen expressed confidence a meaningful agreement could be reached that benefits both sides.